Chapter 11: The path and the turning


2nd August 2002 - Mykines, Faroe Islands

By the time Hermione woke up Tom was gone from the bed. The sheets were pulled tight behind her back, the pillow smooth and plump; the only indication that he had ever lain there was the faint warmth that lingered when she pressed her hand into the quilt. That, and the little knot of tighter curls at the nape of her neck, where his breath must have stirred her hair as they slept.

Hermione tried not to think about this - the closeness, the intimacy of it - as she dressed. She tried not to think about the poem that he had whispered to her, or how terribly, horribly safe she had felt with his arm around her.

He wasn't Harry, she reminded herself. And she shouldn't treat him like he was.

Once she was dressed she made her way downstairs to find him stood outside on the porch, his eyes on the heavy sky. Tom didn't look at her when she stepped out to join him, but offered her his own half-drunk mug of tea to sip from. It was so exactly what Harry or Ron would have done that Hermione had half-raised it to her lips before she remembered her resolution and grimaced, handing it back to him.

Tom's lips twitched slightly, and when he cut his gaze to her his eyes gave a dangerous glitter. A whisper of some half-remembered nonsense about loving cups that she had once overheard Parvati and Lavender giggling about made Hermione suddenly very glad that she had not accepted the drink.

She half-expected him to make some sort of sardonic comment as he took the mug from her hand, but all that Tom said was, "We should go before that hits," nodding towards the glowering horizon. Hermione, with no inclination to argue, stuttered a faint assent and followed him inside, watching as he took the mug and, still lacking a wand, rinsed it by hand in the large ceramic sink.

There was something strange about the picture: Tom's methodical movements as he reached for a teatowel and dried the mug were so practised, so domesticated; so entirely lacking in magic. There seemed to be some sort of fundamental disconnect between what she was seeing and what she should see, and Hermione frowned until Tom glanced over his shoulder as he replaced the mug on a shelf and caught her looking at him.

When his gaze met hers his eyes glittered again, and suddenly he was nothing but magic: magic that crowded the small space and caught in her lungs and fizzed on her skin and tasted like salt water and fresh parchment and sharp winter air and -

Tom took a step towards her, and Hermione stumbled back, her hand feeling for the doorknob behind her, but he held up his empty hands and paused in his advance, his eyes not moving from her face.

"Stop it," Hermione said, although she wasn't sure what, exactly, she was telling him to stop, and Tom had the temerity to laugh at her.

"Stop what?" he asked, voice low and smoky and wonderful and awful, and Hermione levelled her wand at him.

"Stop this - this - whatever it is that you're - you're not -"

"He loved you, you know."

The statement seemed apropos of nothing, entirely out of left field, and Hermione frowned, and shook her head. "What do you mean -"

"You were the only one who never abandoned him, who never turned away, and he loved you, but you wouldn't see -"

"Shut up." Her voice broke over the second word, her knees buckling as she threw her hand out to the side to try and catch herself, except Tom was there - his hands under her shoulders, his mouth at the soft hollow where her cheek slid towards her ear.

"It's alright - I've got you - you don't -"

"Let me go," Hermione growled, her anger abrupt and dreadful as she shoved him away, and Tom lurched back as she steadied herself on the counter, his eyes widening into an expression of shock that he quickly mastered, assuming once more his mask of mocking impassivity.

Hermione stared at her hands splayed on the countertop, counting her breaths and trying to master the bolt of fury. How dare he.

How dare he.

Her eyes tracked the spray of scars across her knuckles, the light freckles marking the thin skin that stretched tight across the bones; and he was not Harry, and he could never be Harry, and she had brought him back nonetheless.

"You're not him," she managed to grind out shakily. "You're not him, so stop -"

"I loved you, then," Tom said, and while the words were blunt his voice was sharp enough to cut her to the bone.

"Fuck off," Hermione bit out, as vicious as he was cruel. "You wouldn't know the first thing about it."

The charge in the air fell away as abruptly as though she had slapped him, and Hermione took a deep breath, feeling her heart rate start to climb down. She didn't dare look at Tom, but instead turned away towards the door, pausing briefly to write a quick, innocuous note of thanks in Mikkjal's guestbook before she grabbed her rucksack and set off in the direction of the hill.

She didn't need to check whether he had followed her; she could hear the quiet crunch of his boots on the loose gravel.

Could feel his gaze burning into the back of her neck, all the way up the wind-whipped path.

oOo

The worst part about the apparation to Lerwick wasn't that she had to touch him: it was how very much she wanted to.

The necessity of skin contact in order to make a side-along work had always seemed such an innocuous thing; she had never given any thought to grabbing Harry's hand, or Ron's, or even Draco or Theo's in latter years.

But it seemed to her for a moment, standing at the the top of the hill, with the storm clouds lowering and the puffins calling out all around, that to take Tom's hand would be like touching lightning, or fire; something wounding and terrible.

His face was shuttered when she chanced a look up at him, blank of all expression except the slightest tightening at the corners of his mouth. Hermione huffed a sigh and looked around them. She would have been grateful, in the moment, for the excuse of nearby muggles, the chance of their being seen; but of course she had cast muggle-repelling charms already, and he was just standing there waiting for her, with his unreadable face and his stiff posture and his hand held out for her to take, as though it was such a very small thing to do.

"Why are you afraid?"

She could have pretended not to hear him: he spoke softly, and the stormfront had whipped the air into a frenzy. Hermione's hair tried to wrench itself free of her ponytail, curls dancing in the air between them, and strands of Tom's own overlong mop twisted and coiled across his forehead, the ends dropping into his eyes, and still he didn't look away.

"None of this is what I thought it would be," Hermione admitted, and she did take his hand then, tracing the strong, unbroken lines on his palm as she held his gaze. "You're supposed to be the nightmare; the monster; but you're not - you're -"

For once Hermione found that she didn't quite have the words to describe the strangeness of him: how she felt at once so safe and yet so horribly exposed in his presence.

"Am I not?" Tom asked, with a cruel twist to his mouth as his fingers closed around hers and he drew her close to him. "You've made it quite clear that you don't believe me capable of change."

Hermione could feel her blood starting to rise again; could feel that choking sensation that was half fear and half something else that made her want to run away; that made her want to close the final breath of distance between them. "I don't -"

"No need to look under the bed, is there," Tom smiled ruthlessly at her, "if the monster's right here?"

Hermione tightened her grip on the wand in her pocket. His teeth caught the thin dazzle of sunlight that had managed to make its way between the purpling clouds, and bit it into shining fragments.

"You're not -" she whispered, and then caught herself, her teeth closing on her lip. His skin was so warm under hers, the pulse strong and true where her fingers were looped around his wrist. "You're not a monster," she said finally. "I have to believe that, but you're not Harry either, and it was supposed to be him, so I don't know what I'm supposed to do when I can't - when I need -"

"What?" Tom asked, his eyes intent. "You think you need him to save you?"

"I don't know what I think anymore," she admitted.

Tom only looked at her a moment longer, and then cut his gaze away to the horizon, where the clouds boiled. "Time to leave," he said, lacing his fingers with hers.

oOo

In Lerwick they had sipped hot chocolate and sat on a bench overlooking the harbour, watching the boats slicing through the glints of sunlight on the steely-blue water.

Hermione had been wracked with shivers, still feeling the damp chill of the North Sea mist deep in her bones. Tom had watched her, saying nothing as he wrapped an extra jacket around her shoulders.

When the sun had dipped below the horizon they had turned by wordless agreement back to the town, slipping into an alley, thence to apparate to Stavanger, where Hermione had been so tired that she staggered against Tom as they landed, sinking to her knees in the dew-damp grass as he took the wand from her unresisting grip to erect the wards and the tent, every bit as efficient as Harry had been by the end of the horcrux hunt.

"You need to eat something," Tom had said as he watched Hermione slot herself mechanically into the bottom bunk, but she had only shaken her head, feeling weak and nauseous. When she had closed her eyes she had seen a flash of red - pomegranate seeds bright as drops of blood - and she had thrown out her hand to catch her fingers in Tom's sleeve.

"Don't leave me," she'd whispered. "Please don't."

And he hadn't, curling his warmth around her and guarding against the spectral ghosts that haunted her restless sleep.

The next morning they'd risen early and struck camp, moving onto Aalborg and thence Hamburg, Hermione still insisting on apparating until she sagged with exhaustion and Tom flatly refused to let her, going so far as to set himself down on the kerbside on Hermannstra├če until she agreed to give him her wand.

"After all," he'd murmured, "it isn't as though I really need it."

She had been too drained to argue with him; too tired even to keep her eyes open as she felt the world fall away around them, the sharp yank of gravity giving way to only Tom: solid and insistently real, the neat line of the underside of his jaw with its dusting of dark stubble the last thing she saw before unconsciousness claimed her.

oOo

4th August 2002 - Hotel Merkwaardig, Amsterdam, Netherlands

When she woke up she was in a large bed, white sheets soft and cool against her skin, and the edge of a dream already fading from memory. Tom was sat on the other side of the bed, his face turned away towards the tall, narrow window through which rich summer sunshine fell in a welcome blaze.

She took a moment just to look at him; the way the sunlight turned the tips of his long eyelashes golden and kissed the tops of his cheekbones.

"You're awake," Tom said after a moment, making her start guiltily. He hadn't moved; hadn't opened his eyes.

"How long was I asleep?" Hermione asked, pushing herself upright and glancing around the room. It was beautifully decorated, with an exposed wooden floor, walls covered in dove-grey silk, and a few elegant pieces of dark wooden furniture.

"Twelve hours or so," Tom said, pushing himself to standing and walking to the window. He still hadn't looked at her. "I took advantage of the fact to apparate us as far as Istanbul, I thought we could -"

"You didn't!" Hermione threw the sheets off, leaping up from the bed to be immediately assailed by a wave of dizziness. Tom caught her under the elbow with an exasperated shake of his head as she lurched towards the window to see the sun reflecting off the narrow back of a canal some few stories below.

"Amsterdam," he said coolly. "As agreed."

Hermione blew out a relieved breath and allowed him to guide her back to the bed where she subsided back against the pillows.

Tom was watching her closely, his irritation not enough to hide the flash of real concern in his eyes as he asked her, "How do you feel?"

"Like I've been run over by a lorry," Hermione said, then scrunched her face with annoyance. "I mean trampled by -"

"I'm quite aware of what a lorry is, Hermione." His voice was quiet, holding in it a note of admonition. "You nearly drained yourself completely in your effort to keep my hands off your wand, and what purpose it would have served to splinch us somewhere over the Dutch border I've no idea."

Hermione grimaced, unable to argue with the stupidity of it. "I wasn't sure if it would work for you on something so complicated," she said weakly, squirming uncomfortably when Tom raised his eyebrows at her. "It's just, it isn't, it's a new -"

"I'm well aware it's a new wand," he said, pulling the object in question from his pocket and holding it up to the light. "Rowan, if I'm not mistaken?"

"Yes," Hermione nodded, "which -"

"The most incorruptible of the wandwoods," he said musingly. "No wonder I couldn't Imperius the hotelier."

Hermione felt the blood drain from her face and Tom rolled his eyes at her. "Please," he sighed. "You could try giving me the benefit of the doubt."

"Can you blame me?" Hermione asked, though she could feel herself turning scarlet with embarrassment at having been so easily teased. "It's not exactly a stretch to think that it might give you some trouble."

"Perhaps not," Tom said, then as though to demonstrate gave the wand a flick that created a chiming noise in the air of the room, which was quickly followed by the soft pop of apparition.

"Mr Rebus, sir!" Hermione jumped as an elf's bright voice rang out across the room. "Is you requiring breakfast?"

"Yes," Tom said, his eyes gleaming with amusement as he glanced sidelong at Hermione. "Now that Miss Shepherd is awake I'd be most obliged if you could send up two continental trays and a pot of your best coffee."

"Right away, sir," the elf agreed, bowing low. With a snap of its fingers, the food appeared on the low table beside the bed, and with a crack the elf disapparated.

"This is a wizarding hotel?" Hermione asked, as Tom leaned away from her to fill the coffee cups. She accepted the cup he passed her with a nod of thanks, shuffling a bit more upright to avoid spilling the hot liquid down the pyjamas that she definitely hadn't dressed herself in, and feeling her cheeks flame anew.

"In the wizarding quarter between the Nieuwe Herengracht and the Hortus Botanicus," Tom nodded, taking a long sip his coffee as he stepped away to look out of the window again. "I believe it's where the Blacks used to stay when they were in town."

Hermione nearly spluttered over her mouthful of coffee as she stared wide-eyed at him. "And you thought it would be safe to -"

"Pureblood families choose establishments for their discretion," Tom said, perfectly, infuriatingly unruffled as he glanced over his shoulder at her. "Though you will have noticed I took the precaution of not using our real names."

"Oh yes," Hermione scoffed. "Rebus and Shepherd, as though we're in some terrible detective novel."

Tom frowned slightly and then shook his head as though to dismiss this particular bit of stupidity. "If you're feeling well enough, I thought we might discuss what you wanted to do next?"

"Next?" Hermione had been helping herself to a croissant, but now looked up to see that Tom was watching her intently.

"The compass is indicating south," he said, "Which I suspect means -"

"Switzerland," Hermione nodded. "Or Italy."

"Quite," Tom said. "Either way, we cannot have much further to go, and so I was considering the question of how exactly we might explain my presence, when something occurred to me."

The room seemed to have gone very still, and Hermione could hear the rustle of Tom's clothing as he drew the wand out of his pocket again, spinning it in his fingers. "You tried to bring Potter back from the dead because you believe that he is the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord, correct?"

"That's what the prophecy said," Hermione agreed slowly, and Tom nodded.

"Prophecies are tricky things," he murmured. "Something that I - that the other me seems to have forgotten."

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked, "What is it that you're getting at?"

"We get the saviours we deserve, Hermione." Tom tapped a finger thoughtfully against the window pane, the sunlight licking across his dark hair. "And you shouldn't trust a seer's timings."

"You can't possibly -"

"'And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal'," Tom quoted musingly, setting the wand down on the bedside table as he turned back towards her. "Isn't that what it said?"

She felt the way the mattress tilted as he sat down; how his weight tipped her towards him.

"'Born as the seventh month dies'," Hermione breathed, feeling ice slip down her spine, then frowned. "'Born to those who have three times defied him'?"

"Riddle me this," Tom smirked. "It's no surprise you couldn't stand Trelawney, when she would insist on wording it like that, but I wonder, would I be mistaken in thinking your little mob have faced him down three times?"

Hermione blinked with the realisation. Hogwarts, The Burrow, Nott Manor. "I -" she started to say, and then stopped, because Tom's finger was under her chin, was tipping her face up towards his.

She shivered at the heat of his touch, at the not-quite-pressure of his fingertip, at the terrifying closeness of him.

"'Neither can live while the other survives'," she said, hardly daring to breathe as he leaned towards her.

"Well," Tom said, and she felt the whisper of the word against her mouth, "I quite like my odds."

She didn't want him to kiss her; didn't want to know how it might feel to have his lips on hers, his hands tangled in her hair, his body, him, pressed to hers, to her. She didn't want it, because the moment she had it she was afraid that she would never want anything else.

"My mother used to say that Tom Riddle had two specialities," Draco smiled in her memory, bitter and dark. "Seduction and destruction."

Hermione flinched back, and Tom dropped his chin to his chest with a humourless laugh. "It seems I will keep forgetting how impossible you are," he said, his voice low and mocking, and Hermione felt a jolt of the same anger that had animated her back in Mykines.

"Just because you can work a Rowan wand," she spat, "and just because you have Harry's memories, it doesn't make you him, you can't pretend that you're -"

"Pretend that I'm Harry?" Tom asked, his head coming up so that his eyes drowned her in cobalt. "I'm not him, Hermione," he growled, "and I'm done pretending."

He was a cliff-edge, a sheer precipice yawning open before her. She could feel magic quickening between them, stealing her breath and squeezing her heart and - seduction and destruction -

"Then stop," she whispered.


A/N: For frak-all, truly a joy.